Oxford can claim to be the birthplace of Methodism, since it saw what John Wesley called 'the first rise of Methodism' in the informal meetings of students associated with the Wesley brothers and nicknamed 'the Holy Club'. Both brothers were students at Christ Church (as had been their brother Samuel) and John Wesley was elected fellow of Lincoln College in 1726 living in rooms in the Chapel Quad, not those restored in his name in1928, resigning only in 1755, four years after his marriage. He regularly preached in churches in the city, including University Sermons from the pulpit of St Mary the Virgin, until his outspoken sermon on 'Scriptural Christianity' led to his exclusion in 1744.
The first Methodist chapel was opened at the southern end of New Inn Hall Street in 1783, on a site leased from Brasenose College (now marked by a plaque). It was replaced by a larger one by William Jenkins in the same street in 1818. Until 1854 admission to the Universary was confined to Anglicans, but following the admission of non-Anglicans the Victorian Gothic Wesley Memorial Church, designed by Charles Bell and built by Joshua Symm, was opened in 1878 in front of its 1818 predecessor. The older building became a Sunday School and lecture room, was sold to St. Peter's in 1932 and demolished in 1968.
The short ministry (1881-84) of Hugh Price Hughes marked the beginning of a notable period in the church's history. A society for Methodist students was formed in 1882 during his ministry, originally called the Wesley Guild and changed to the Wesley Society in 1903 to avoid confusion with the new youth movement. (The PMs and UMs also had a 'Methodist Society'; all were amalgamated in 1933 to form the 'John Wesley Society', which still exists.) A new chapel was built in Walton Street and a mission church in William Street; also chapels at New Hinksey and Eynsham. Open-air work was begun in villages where there was no WM society.
There were PM chapels in New Street and Pembroke Street. The UM work was at Rose Hill and in the villages. The World Methodist Conference of 1951 met in the Sheldonian Theatre. Westminster College moved from London to its Harcourt Hill site at North Hinksey in 1959. The campus is now occupied by Oxford Brookes University.
John Wesley's Journal:
October 1739: 'I rode to Oxford; and found a few who had not yet forsaken the assembling themselves together, to whom I explained that "holiness without which no man shall see the Lord".
[Two days later] 'I had a little leisure to take a view of the shattered condition of things here. The poor prisoners both in the castle and in the city prison, had now none that cared for their souls; none to instruct, advise, comfort, and build them up in the knowledge and love of the Lord Jesus. None was left to visit the workhouses, where also we used to meet with the most moving objects of compassion. Our little school, where about twenty children at a time had been taught for many years, was on the point of being broke up, there being none now either to support or to attend it; and most of those in the town, who were once knit together, and strengthened one another's hands in God, were torn asunder or scattered abroad. "It is time for Thee, Lord, to lay to Thy hand." '
June 1741: 'I found a great change among the poor people here. Out of twenty-five or thirty weekly communicants, only two were left. Not one continued to attend the daily prayers of the Church. And those few that were once united together were now torn asunder and scattered abroad.'
July 1741: 'It being my turn (which comes about once in three years), I preached at St. Mary's before the University. The harvest truly is plenteous. So numerous a congregation (from whatever motives they came) I have seldom seen at Oxford. My text was the confession of poor Agrippa, "Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." I have "cast my bread upon the waters." Let me "find it again after many days"! '
Friday 24 August, 1744: 'St. Bartholomew's Day, I preached, I suppose, the last time at St. Mary's. Be it so. I am now clear of the blood of these men. I have fully delivered my own soul.
'The Beadle came to me afterwards and told me the Vice-chancellor had sent him for my notes. I sent them without delay, not without admiring the wise providence of God. Perhaps few men of note would have given a sermon of mine the reading if I had put it into their hands. But by this means it came to be read, probably more than once, by every man of eminence in the University.'
May 1745: 'I cannot spend one day here without heaviness in my heart for my brethren's sake. O God, when wilt Thou show these, who say they are rich, that they are poor, and miserable, and blind, and naked?'
January 1751: 'Having received a pressing letter from Dr. Isham, then the Rector of our College, to give my vote at the election for a member of Parliament, which was to be the next day, I set out…
[Next day] 'I was much surprised, wherever I went, at the civility of the people - gentlemen as well as others. There was no pointing, no calling of names, as once; no, nor even laughter. What can this mean? Am I become a servant of men? Or is the scandal of the cross ceased?'
November 1768: 'On Thursday, in my return [from Witney], I was desired to preach at Oxford. The room was thoroughly filled, and not with curious, but deeply serious hearers. Many of these desired that our travelling preachers would take them in their turn, with which I willingly complied.'
October 1769: 'Having appointed to preach in Oxford at ten, I was under some difficulty. I did not like to preach in the Dissenting meeting-house; and I did not see how to avoid it. But the proprietors cut the knot for me by locking up the doors. So I preached in James Mears's garden; and to such a congregation as I had not had in Oxford since I preached in St. Mary's Church.'
October 1778: 'I went to Oxford, and, having an hour to spare, walked in Christ Church, for which I cannot but still retain a peculiar affection. What lovely mansions are these! What is wanting to make the inhabitants of them happy? That without which no rational creature can be happy - the experimental knowledge of God.'
October 1782: 'About noon I preached at Oxford. I have seen no such prospect here for many years. The congregation was large and still as night, although many gentlemen were among them. The next evening the house would not contain the congregation; yet all were quiet, even those that could not come in. And I believe God not only opened thei understandings, but began a good work in some of their hearts.'
July 1783: 'In the evening I preached in the new preaching-house at Oxford, a lightsome, cheerful place, and well filled with rich and poor, scholars as well as townsmen.
[Next day] 'Walking through the city, I observed it swiftly improving in everything but religion.'
October 1785: 'Returning to Oxford [from Witney], I once more surveyed many of the gardens and delightful walks. What is wanting but the love of God to make this place an earthly paradise? I preached in the evening to a very serious audience.'
October 1789: 'As notice had been given, though without my knowledge, of my preaching at noon, I did so on "There is one God," to a very serious congregation; but in the evening such a multitude of people pressed in that they hindered one another from hearing. I know not when we have had so noisy a congregation; so that by their eagerness to hear they defeated their own purpose.'
Wesley's University sermon, 1744:
'We were last Friday entertained at St. Mary's by a curious sermon from Wesley the Methodist. Among other equally modest particulars, he informed us, 1st, that there was not one Christian among all the Heads of Houses; 2ndly, that pride, gluttony, avarice, luxury, sensuality and drunkenness were general characteristics of all Fellows of Colleges, who were useless to a proverbial uselessness. Lastly, that the younger part of the University were a generation of triflers, all of them perjured and none of them of any religion at all. His notes were demanded by the Vice-Chancellor, but on mature deliberation it has been thought proper to punish him by a mortifying neglect.'
William Blackstone, quoted in Sermons of John Wesley, ed. Albert C. Outler (1984) vol. 1 p114.
'When Benjamin Gregory reached Oxford [in 1857] he found Methodism in a truly pitiable condition. Internal dissensions had reduced it almost to ruin. All the influences of an University and Cathedral town were opposed to it, and were employed with contemptuouis unscrupulousness. The finances were strained to the verge of bankruptcy. The ministerial allowances were notably small, even for those days of parsimony and severity… For the nonce my father's optimistic views of a new Circuit failed him… But when his first March Quarterly Meeting arrived, everything had changed. The strain on the finances had ceased; the almost empty chapel was tolerably filled; … and - wonder of wonders! - Methodism was beginning to touch the University life…
'With the University the one unpardonable sin was attendance at a Nonconformist church. Dog-fighting, all sorts of loose escapades and low habits might be condoned, but the line must be drawn somewhere, and it was drawn - at the Methodist chapel. Nevertheless, "young men", of course, in mufti, would sneak to hear the preacher of whom tidings had strangely reached them. Rarely , at first, did they venture into the body of the chapel, but they stood in the lobby, listening through the open doors. They were"proctorised" - vainly. After a while, the scion of a noble house, who had been rescued from a fast life through hearing my father preach, defied the proctor, and threatened unpleasant consequences if he were interfered with. One success emboldened others, and a fair sprinkling of graduates and undergraduates could generally be seen in the chapel when my father appeared, specially on a Sunday evening.'
John Robinson Gregory, in Benjamin Gregory, Autobiographical Recollections (1903), pp.407-8